Professional hockey eyeing return to Mississippi Coast
By Lindy Sholes
It may be baffling to some that the Mississippi Gulf Coast, known for its tropical climate, has quite a history and potentially a thriving future in the sport of hockey.
Hockey made its debut on the Coast in 1996, when the SeaWolves took to the ice at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum. Coast residents made a decade of memories watching the SeaWolves play, the pinnacle of those memories being a Kelly Cup championship in 1999. After Hurricane Katrina caused $27 million in damage to the coliseum, the SeaWolves had to sit out for two seasons. They returned for a brief stint until 2009 when they switched from the East Coast Hockey League to the Southern Professional Hockey League as the Mississippi Surge. The Surge team was around until 2014.
Hockey brought Long Beach fireman and ten-year hockey pro-Justin Barr to the Coast in 2015. He met his wife, Long Beach native Maria Scafide, in 2014, when he was playing against the Surge with his team at the time, the Fayetteville FireAntz. His team was staying at what was then the Four Points hotel in Biloxi, and he saw her in the lobby. His roommate had played for the Surge and knew her because she had worked with the team. The roommate introduced them, a flame was sparked, and Barr would soon exchange his hockey skates for firefighter boots.
Growing up in Chicago, Barr started ice skating as soon as he was able to walk, and he played hockey from the time he was in high school. He hasn’t played since he moved here, but Barr may have an opportunity to lace up his skates before the year is over.
In December, the Coast will host three Federal Professional Hockey League games, and the game turnout will determine if the Coast could start a hockey team from the ground up, the new Mississippi Sea Wolves.
When coliseum executive director Matt McDonnell addressed a crowd of more than 160 at a press conference in July, he said that in order to bring hockey back to the Coast, repairs must be made, equipment must be purchased, and investors must be reassured that starting up a new team would not be too big a risk.
“[These are] three chances to see professional hockey in your coliseum,” McDonnell said. “It’s very important that we turn out to support this…Turnout will really be the key as to how we move forward to bring professional hockey back for a full season in the fall of 2022 and spring of 2023.”
Barry Soskin, a team owner in the FPHL, is optimistic about the hockey prospects in Biloxi. Coast residents who were once drawn to all the thrills of hockey should expect nothing less in the future.
“FPHL is about old school hockey, the physicality that takes this game to the next level,” Soskin said at the press conference. “FPHL touts heart-pounding action, great teams, great buildings, and constructing great fan bases. Our players aren’t just in the community, they’re part of it, and it works wonders.”
In a video message, former Seawolves player and now coach of the Columbus River Dragons Jerome Bechard said he is thrilled to support the return of a team to the Coast.
“You guys are the best fans in hockey, and you deserve hockey back,” he said, “so let’s do this together - and let’s bring hockey back to Biloxi.”
Biloxi Pro Hockey is an organization dedicated to bringing hockey back to the Coast. Barr joined the organization when it started in July and has been working in community relations. He said he would love to be given a chance to play again.
“If it were up to me, I’d be one hundred percent on the team, but to what extent, I’m not sure,” he said. “I’d love to lace up the skates and get back out there again…I feel in better shape at 37 than I did at 30. I’m ready for it, if I’m called to get on the ice again.”
Barr said a home hockey team would be great for Coast communities.
“It’s family-friendly, great for all ages; and I think it’s a great, fun, fast-paced, exciting sport to watch, especially during the cold months when everyone is done boating,” he said. “I think there is still a plethora of hockey fans on the Gulf Coast who want hockey back.”
Barr said he envisions a hockey program with a lot of focus on youth.
“There’s a whole generation of kids that may have never even been to a hockey game or considered playing the sport that would grow into a deeper fan base on the Gulf Coast,” he said.
Fifty-year Long Beach resident and business owner Lou Anna Claveau is an avid hockey fan whose sons, now 25 and 23, played hockey with the junior Sea Wolves when they were younger. Her youngest son, 16, has been playing football, but she said he would pounce on the opportunity to play hockey if a youth league were available.
Claveau has fond memories of watching her sons play on the ice. She recalls watching them block goals and “throw gloves” with other players.
“Hockey isn’t like any other sport around,” she said. “Hockey is fast-paced action and keeps you guessing! All the talent in the world doesn’t always mean a guaranteed win. Heart, fans chanting and boosting their team goes a long way.”
Claveau said she thinks there is potential for new excitement among hockey fans on the Coast, and she is definitely interested in attending future games.
“We have sports betting and, with that, a renewed interest in all sports,” she said. “The fan base is pretty small and hidden; but, if the media can stir up the excitement as they do for football, I think we could definitely have a great fan base.”
FPHL neutral site games featuring the Carolina Thunderbirds, Port Huron Prowlers, and Columbus RiverDragons will be December 2, 17, and 30 at the Coast Coliseum. To purchase tickets and support hockey coming back to the Gulf Coast, visit the coliseum box office or ticketmaster.com. Ticket prices start as low as $9. For more information on hockey making a comeback on the Coast, visit biloxiprohockey.com.